Saturday, October 16, 2010

Water and the Murray Darling river system

We have recently seen the Murray Darling river system - Australia's greatest river system - drastically affected by reduced water flow due to the combined effects of climate change and irrigation from the river.

For several years the Murray River stopped flowing into the sea.  Barrages (like dams) are in place to stop seawater  moving backup through the lower lakes and river systems, including the wonderful Coorong.  If saltwater were to do this, the freshwater ecology of these parts of the system would be greatly damaged.

The drought that lasted over 10 years exceeded all wort-case estimates by climatologists and weather experts.  It has been broken in 2010, but the underlying causes for it have not gone away, and this cycle could be repeated within the next decade.

The drought drastically reduced water flows.  Many farmers with water allocations ("rights") along the river simply could not get their water.  Orchards, vineyards and dairies relying on water from the river had to shut down or close, and many commercial trees and agricultural crops died.

There is no point having water rights if there is no water.

The Wentworth Group of Scientists warned of this scenario over a decade ago, but their warnings and recommendations were ignored by governments and policy makers.  There has been much talk about "doing something" to restore desperately needed environmental flows to the river system, but very little effective action to date.

The Murray–Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) has now commenced community engagement about actions and recommendations to restore environmental flows the river system.  They have released the a Guide to the Basin Plan document.

Some of the proposal and information on the guide include:
  • Proposed basin-wide cuts to water extraction of 27 to 37 per cent.
  • $9 billion has been allocated to buy back water allocations
  • No one will be forced to sell water
  • In many river valleys a lot of the reductions in water allocations has already occurred
  • Two-thirds of the minimum 3000-gigalitre reduction will be achieved by 2014 through programs already in train.
  • The amount of additional surface water needed for the environment is between 3,000 GL/y and 7,600 GL/y (longterm average).
  • The current average volume of water provided to the environment is about 19,100 GL/y, so this range of additional water would mean that the long-term average volume of water provided to the environment would be between 22,100 GL/y and 26,700 GL/y.
The guide details possible water reductions required in numerous regions within the basin.  This has generated major concern within rural communities within many regions, who fear that reduced water allocations will have drastic financial impacts on agricultural producers and the local economy and towns they support.
This will certainly be the case - but similar impacts have occurred, and will occur again, when water in the river system becomes scarce again.

There have been loud and irrational outbursts at public consultation and meeting and directed and the Federal Government , the Water Minister and numerous other members of parliament.

It is worth noting that so far only a guide to the plan has been release, not any binding plan or commitments.  This is being misrepresented by emotive claims by some rural commentators - and federal politicians such as Senator Barnaby Joyce - that "this plan (sic) will lead to the decimation of rural agriculture and country towns".  This is not consultation or a debate - this is a beat up.

Cotton, rice and vineyards all produce crops and products that require vast amounts of water (more information).  Ditto for dairies. I think it is clear that this type of production should happen in regions that have sufficient available rainfall, rather than chronically depleting a river system.

It is not hard to see why there has been no effective action on restoring environmental flows in this river system to date.  Any attempts to do so are met with a barrage of emotion and accusations, which in the past have  lead to major water reforms being shelved.

It is to be hoped that the current water reform process doesn't suffer the same fate.  Otherwise the next severe drought will cause decimation of rural agriculture and country towns along with like death of much of the ecology of the river system.

The new parliamentary committee for regional Australia, chaired by independent MP Tony Windsor whose electorate will be affected by the plan, appears  likely head up a parliamentary inquiry into the social and economic effects of the proposed cuts.  Let's hope he acts in the best interests of all Australians in doing so.

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Grant said...

The whole change process depends entirely on farmers and rural communities (and the 3 Federal Independents) accepting any proposal. If they do not, the whole proposal is dead in the water until an acceptable proposal is written. Somebody needs to convince the farmers and rural communities that all businesses will receive their required allotment of water to remain viable.
From the current feedback (consultations eg. Griffith and including Banks apparently advising some that loss of water entitlements may result in foreclosure) I would not hold my breath for any change for many, many years.

Peter Campbell said...

That could well be the case Grant - it seems the direction the politics is heading. So now we have the prospect of catastrophic damage to both the river system and local businesses and communities - when the next long term drought happens.

Sue said...

You can learn more about the barrages and how harmful they have been to the environment around the Lower Lakes here .